Considerations for Weaning Calves

— Written By and last updated by Nancy Power
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With spring a couple of months away, it’s time for cattle producers to begin planning to wean last year’s calf crop. Cattle producers have the goal to keep calves healthy and growing throughout the entire weaning process while maintaining profitability. We all know weaning is a stressful experience for both calves and their dams and while we cannot totally alleviate stress, there are some management practices that can be used to help minimize it during the process.

When to Wean

Several factors can influence when you may choose to wean your calf crop. Pasture availability, cow body condition, and market prices all play a role on choosing a weaning date. Beef calves that are nursing from cows are most commonly weaned between 5 to 9 months old but if forage is in good supply and the dam has a decent body condition, 3 or better, then it is usually best to wean when they are around the 7 to 9-month age.

Timely weaning is important as it allows the gestating dam to recover before the next calving season. If forage is in short supply due to drought, it can be economical to wean calves early. Although you may have to front the cost to feed early-weaned calves, gestating cows are able to dry off, recover and focus energy on their pregnancy. Also, dry cows have lower nutrient requirements which lightens the grazing pressure on pastures. When a cow is in a good body condition, they have a more efficient pregnancy with less complications.

Another factor that may influence your weaning time is market prices. Adjusting weaning date or retaining calves may be necessary to take advantage of better market prices.

Weaning Method

When choosing a weaning method, you have options that will affect the health of your calves. Traditional weaning involves moving calves to a new location where they cannot see, smell or hear their dams. This “out of sight out of mind” method can be somewhat stressful to newly weaned calves especially if they are moved long distances to an unfamiliar area.

Another weaning method is fence line weaning. Calves are weaned in a pasture or dry lot that has cross fencing (usually woven wire or electric high-tensile) separating them from the cows’ pasture. Calves and their dams are able to see each other and even make some contact through the fence. Over the last 10 years, several universities have studied the effects weaning on weight gain and have found that calves who were weaned using the fence-line were significantly heavier than calves that were weaned using the traditional method. Researchers also observed that calves paced and bawled less in the fence-line weaning scenario. The largest drawback from fence line weaning is calves often crawl under the fence even if the fence is electrified. Although it’s more expensive, high tensile woven wire will keep calves in the weaning area while still being in contact with their dams.

As you start planning to wean your calf crop keep in mind that the process can be stressful for both the dams and the calves. Refrain from introducing any additional stresses such as branding, tagging, vaccinating, or castration during this period. Remember, overly stressed calves often become sick calves that require treatment.

If you have any questions regarding livestock production please contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Richmond County Center at (910) 997-8255.